Mixed classes for men and women

By Dr Mohammad Akram Nadwi

Some people from India, where I used to teach, have put to me the following question:

Why now do you teach classes in which men and women students share the same space? [By ‘the same space’ is meant a space without any sort of physical partition.]

Since the question addresses my own practice, I am obliged to answer for myself. This I do briefly in section 2. First, at more length, I want to state the general principles that we should have in mind when thinking about this matter. In section 3, by way of summary, I re-state my main points.

1. General discussion

If two or more groups of Muslims find themselves doing the same (or different) things differently from each other, and they want to resolve their differences, the Qur’an has a clear instruction: Refer any disputes among you to God and His Messenger.  And also: Only when you have accepted the guidance and judgement of God and His Messenger without any inward or outward resistance, only then have you secured your faith and thereby the authority that comes from secure faith.

The benefit of doing this is obvious. By making reference to God and His Messenger, the differing groups agree that they are subject to the same guidance for their efforts to attain the same objective. Just as it strengthens solidarity to have the same qiblah, so too it strengthens solidarity to have the same objective. Of course, Muslims may still differ on the details of how that objective is to be approached in light of the ‘accidents’ of their different local circumstances. But such differences do not lead to division and conflict. They lead, in fact, to a better understanding of the shared objective and how to attain it, and to an improved commitment to it.

The specifics of local climate, local cultural habits and preferences, and other local material realities, constitute the ‘accidents’ in light of which the effort for the shared objective has to be adjusted. The effort of adjustment is rewarded. The effort of respectful tolerance for the different adjustments others are having to make in light of their realities – that too is rewarded. What is not rewarded is self-righteousness, the presumption of thinking one’s own group the only ones doing the right thing in the right way.

The maghfirah of God is vast in comparison to human tendencies to err and sin. God has witnessed and recorded those tendencies from the beginning of man’s creation, through his conception and growth in the womb, to the least particle of intent and action in his present life. So, it is seriously unwise to ascribe rightness to oneself, to deny one’s need (and therefore one’s access) to that vast divine forgiveness.

On the matter of Islamic education, there is no disagreement among Muslims that the need for it and the right to it are the same for both males and females. Therefore, there can be no disagreement among Muslims that the community must make provision to meet the need, alike for men and women so that they get the right due to them.

‘Islamic education’ means more than the minimums of being able to read the Qur’an in Arabic script, and knowing how to do the prayers and other obligations correctly. It means also some understanding of how to build one’s faith and trust in God, and how to preserve the breadth, flexibility and humanity of the teaching of the Qur’an and God’s Messenger. Of course, books can help; but Islamic education in the full meaning of the term requires in-person interaction – personal attention, personal attendance – patience and perseverance, hour after hour over many months, on the part of teacher and students. Our model is God’s Messenger, Salla l-lahu `alayhi wa-sallam.

Both men and women used to pray in his masjid, listen to his sermons and his teaching, and both men and women used to ask him questions. This happened in ‘the same space’ in the sense that there was no physical partition in the Prophet’s masjid between men and women. Also, both men and women did i`tikaf (retreat in the mosque) with him. However, the women sometimes found it difficult to have their questions heard ahead of the men, and no doubt there were some questions they would not want to ask in front of men. So, they asked the Prophet, Salla l-lahu `alayhi wa-sallam, if he would set aside one day in a week exclusively for them. The Prophet accepted that and he did as they asked. Thus, the women enjoyed the greater flexibility; they could attend his lessons alongside the men and they also had a separate session with him, from which the men were excluded.

It is also worth remembering (since some people insist that strict, complete segregation is more authentically ‘Islamic’) that some believing women took part in combat along with men in jihad during and after the lifetime of the Prophet. They also shared ‘the same space’ in all normal interactions, such as when at the market, when travelling between places, when visiting each other, etc. All the rites of the hajj, including tawaf of the Ka`bah, were done by men and women in ‘the same space’, and this convention has remained unchanged to the present day.

As I have mentioned in the book Muhaddithat, there are hundreds of documents from every century of Islam (with very few from the last three) registering the presence of men and women attending the same classes, with sometimes men and sometimes women being the teachers, and there are hundreds of ijazahs where men and women record learning the hadiths in one or more books from the same teacher.

Without digressing into the question of religious authority for women, it is important to note that the many great, learned `ulama (whom we accept as imams), who record their great debt to their women teachers, could not have incurred that great debt without some ‘same space’ interaction. We can be confident that such interaction was done with observance of the proprieties of speech and dress, and expressions of respect for the teacher (male or female), that are commended in the sunan of God’s Messenger and of his Companions.

In spite of all that I have just said, the fact is that there is, in the minds of Muslims (especially those from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and those who have migrated from there to Western nation-states such as the UK, and their descendants), a well-established idea that segregation of male and female is the desirable ideal in Islam.

They seem to believe that the Islamic ideal, what Muslims should strive for, is that men and women stay apart as much as possible (except those who are married, or those who could never be married, to each other). They are also aware that Muslims may depart from that ideal when practical necessity or some unique circumstance compels them. As an example of the latter: the awe of the haram and of the occasion of pilgrimage to Makkah is such that no-one fears that any misbehaviour can result from the rows of men and women worshippers being mixed up; in any case, there are so many worshippers attending at the Ka`bah that the prayer would have concluded before the normal arrangement of the worshippers’ rows could be implemented. This exception makes the ideal all the clearer for some Muslims. Until recently, far from implementing the Prophetic sunnah in respect of how the rows of men and women worshippers must be arranged, many masjids in South Asia (and some in the UK set up by immigrants from South Asia) did not have any provision for women to worship at all. (Happily, this is changing rapidly, in favour of the Prophetic model).

So strong is this conception of the religious merit of segregation that, until very recent times, the more pious a family the less likely that they would permit their daughters to get religious instruction (at any level, but especially at higher ages and higher levels) in any setting other than women-only. The parents’ concern is not just to do with the safety of their daughters; it is to do with their perception of the piety of the arrangement.

Over roughly the same period that the heaviest migrations from South Asia to the UK and elsewhere happened, UK higher education institutions for women only disappeared. For example, the first women to become Prime Minister of the UK (Thatcher and May) will be the last women ever to do so having graduated from women-only colleges in Oxford. So, the first Muslim men and women, from among the immigrant community, to enter British universities did so after they had all (including the elite collegiate ones) become ‘same space’ institutions.

For a variety of reasons, mostly to do with practical matters like cost and availability of enough teachers, universities around the world, including the Muslim world, are all ‘same space’ institutions, with (as in British universities) some ‘segregation’ of residential accommodation. Muslim parents put up with this set-up because they want their sons and daughters to get the ‘higher’ education that will get them ‘higher’ status employment. It does not follow that these same parents will accept the same arrangements when it comes to Islamic education. On the contrary, they would and do consider any Muslim institution offering the same arrangements as ‘Westernised’, guilty of some degree of religious or cultural betrayal of ‘Islamic values’.

2. My experience and practice

When I came to Oxford it was as a research fellow without any attendant teaching commitments. However, I believe very strongly in the good that comes from teaching, for both teacher and students. This is especially true for Islamic education, where the class has the opportunity to learn and discuss how the norms and rules of Islam are adjusted in everyday life. It is by these adjustments that the values of the Qur’an and Sunna are preserved, and transmitted by one person to another, with the attachment of each to the religion growing in the process. It was not long therefore before I began teaching, both formal (class, seminar) and informal gatherings.

The Oxford university’s Muslims of course had an Islamic Society, and I was often asked to speak to them. I then came to be invited by other Islamic Societies fairly frequently, so that I visited many universities in the UK. My talks were presented in the space provided to me. In the early years, as I can easily recall, men and women students, the very same who had spent the day attending the same classes together, eating at the same cafeterias, studying in the same libraries, came to the venue in small groups. But then, on passing the door into the room, they would rather abruptly and shyly separate, the men on one side and the women on the other. Evidently, they believed this to be the correct Islamic behaviour, and only such behaviour was suitable at a gathering for ‘Islamic education’. Afterwards, privately, some students confided to me that they felt very silly doing this, as if they were putting on a show, like a sort of costume drama without any set costume.

I was very impressed with the eagerness of the students to study Qur’an and hadith, and really get to grips with the classical scholars’ understanding of these sources. I felt there was a need for more intensive and formal courses in Arabic, and the basics of the ‘Islamic sciences’. Some of my students set up al-Salam Institute in Oxford/London and others the Cambridge Islamic College. Both offered `Alimiyyah classes to both male and female students. I lectured in them while also continuing to give less formal talks at other venues classes across the country and abroad.

The Islamic ideal in respect of the interactions of men and women is not segregation. The ideal is, in the familiar Qur’anic expression, ‘lowering the gaze’. That is, religious self-control. This is not the self-control of academic or technical disciplines, which is focused on particular tasks for the sake of outcomes of predictable quality, and for protecting the dignity of the professional occupation. ‘Lowering the gaze’ is the self-control of someone who fears God, someone who prays and fasts, and with that effort is consciously answering a command of God.

‘Islamic education’ is intended to build and grow this self-control. (Modern economic activity in general needs self-control, notably the ability to defer gratification to a future time; but this is of a quite different nature from religious self-control, with a very different qiblah).

‘Lowering the gaze’ is expressed by men in the deliberate control of facial and verbal expression, in the avoidance of the kind of familiarity of look, gesture, word, etc. that can be confused with flirting.  It is expressed by women in the same ways, with the additional requirement of the hijab. The hijab is not a burden put on women by men who are too feeble to control their appetites. (It is too flimsy a device to deter a man who cannot control his appetite.) The purpose of the hijab is for the woman’s sake, so that she can more easily control her need (also a bodily appetite) to be noticed, looked at, approved by others (usually men). Everyone should know the hadith in which the Prophet, Salla l-lahu `alayhi wa-sallam, corrects two women who are thinking of not wearing hijab in the house they will be sharing with a blind man. The women say, He can’t see us. And they are told, No, but you can see him.

If ‘lowering the gaze’ and hijab are generally practised, my judgement is:

It is more practical, more fair, and more coherent with the realities of the way most people now live, to provide Islamic education in classes where men and women share the same space. Doing so is, very importantly, a help in understanding the purpose of, and giving some training in,  ‘lowering the gaze’.

That said, I would never refuse to teach a class of men-only or women-only students, or a class where men and women are seated separately in a separate space. The idea that segregating men and women, after they pass puberty, protects them from indulging in forbidden relations, is deeply established in some parts of the Islamic world. Many disadvantages ensue from it, especially for women, and for their opportunities in life, including for freedom of movement. We should not be surprised by that. Any convention that has become established in the Islamic world –– however good and noble the reasons offered for it –– but which is not rooted in the Sunnah of God’s Messenger, Salla l-lahu `alayhi wa-sallam, must necessarily have negative effects greater than any positive ones. But while the highest priority is to provide Islamic education (equally to women and men), then a segregated assembly in which to do so is better than none at all.

In line with the expectations of students, we used to separate the space with a curtain, so that men were on one side of the room and women on the other. Later, we removed the curtain, though the men sat on one side and the women on the other side, the space being marked by a passageway between the two areas. We do not adhere strictly to this arrangement because quite a few of those who attend come in family groups and choose to sit together. We do not have a dress requirement. But the vast majority of women attend class wearing a jilbab and headscarf. There have been few Muslim women, and fewer non-Muslims, who attended these classes without even a headscarf. Also, a small number have attended wearing the face veil or niqab.

My hope, what I want from my teaching, is to make people better aware, to the extent God has willed, of the fundamental principles and values of the religion, how we come to know these from the source texts, and how we embody them in everyday life. It is gratifying to hear that many students, male and female, have told me that with these classes their understanding of the religion was deepened and their faith strengthened.

A few students have courageously reported that they were able to repent from apostasy and other sins; the greater number have reported that their doubts were removed, and how surprised they were to encounter the intellectual and devotional depth in the work of our great scholars of the past. Every year a sizeable number of male and female students graduate and take the `Alimiyyah certificate, and as the number of alumni grow, so too does the understanding of Islam that they are able to pass on.

Now, that seems to me, by the grace of God, an effort worth sticking with; a quiet, patient achievement for which I am deeply grateful. To speak honestly, it does not matter much to me if students want to be taught in a segregated or a mixed space. However, to teach and learn in a mixed space is (for students in the UK and university-level students anywhere in the world) more coherent with the realities of their lives around their ‘Islamic education’ than a segregated space. Because of that greater coherence, it is reasonable to expect a greater influence of ‘Islamic education’ on their attitudes and behaviours outside class.

I am very well aware that many `ulama in India, the country where I trained and studied, do not like the idea of ‘same space’ classes for young men and women. Two consequences follow from this dislike: first, a lot of students, especially the women, may refuse to attend segregated classes because they do not ‘believe in’ segregation, they do not think it feasible to try to sustain this tradition given the realities of modern life – realities like how people shop, travel on public transport, the intermixing that is inevitable in anonymous city life, etc., all of which are experienced and lived by the teachers themselves who insist on segregated spaces for men and women.

Secondly, the time and space given to the education of women in segregated institutions is almost certain to be less than that accorded to their peers among men. When it comes to the need and right to have knowledge of the religion, inequality on the basis of gender is intolerable. (For worldly education, one can make a case that in societies where the overwhelming expectation is that the economic burden falls on men, those who are poor are bound to privilege the education of boys over girls. But as far as the din is concerned, the obligations are the same, and so no such case can be justified. The unjust behaviour is nevertheless sometimes justified, artificially and unconvincingly, by claiming that girls have to be kept at home to keep them safe).

3. Summary

The segregation of spaces for men and women is not an Islamic ideal. It is still presented as such, and many Muslims think that segregation is what would and should happen if only Muslims were not forced to compromise their values under pressure from ‘modernity’, feminism’, ‘capitalism’, ‘the West’, etc.